Episode 57 – Dr. Timothy Brook (UBC)

Originally published on September 4, 2018
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Timothy Brook, Professor of History at the University of British Columbia. Most recently, Dr. Brook is the co-editor of Sacred Mandates: Asian International Relations since Chinggis Khan, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2018. Dr. Brook, thank you for talking with me today.

Timothy Brook: It’s a pleasure to be here.

TG: This podcast has had a number of historians and literature scholars of Japan specifically, and we haven’t really talked about the perspective of the Meiji Restoration from outside of Japan. You’ve published widely on Chinese history from the 17th century all the way up to the 20th century and so, I was hoping that you might be able to talk about the view of the Restoration from Chinese history.

TB: I’m not going to be able to give you a very clear idea of how Chinese at the time think of the Restoration, but what I can do is from the point of view of where we sit today, look back and say: “What was it that was happening in Japan that affected China, and how did China react?”

There are a number of places that go with this. One, there’s a kind of standard comparative setup that we used to do in our lectures (and I think we still do), in which we look at the young samurai who led the Meiji Restoration: it was a new leadership, they were not tied to the traditional interests that had been ruling through the Tokugawa period, and it meant that there was a possibility of re-organizing entirely the way in which the state functioned. And traditionally, in broad and introductory lectures, we contrast that with China, where there were attempts by younger elites, marginalized elites, to come to the centre to take over and re-direct where things were going, and that they continually failed, and failed all the way down to the 19th Revolution, at which point China is in considerable difficulty, and a single elite does not emerge to galvanize the country the way that early Meiji elites somehow were able to pull that off.

So, looking at this as a historian, the traditional narrative has been is that there was a lost opportunity here for China. There was an attempt in 1895, there were attempts in the first decade of the 20th century, but there was never a moment at which a different elite was able to move forward and change the way things were going in China. That narrative, I think, is still pretty much in place, but it’s become a little more complicated. First of all, the established elites of the Qing dynasty were actually paying attention to what was going on in Japan, and they were attempting to do some of the things that the Meiji Restoration group were doing such as trying to develop an early industrialization policy, trying to build up the military.

China was responding in many of the ways in which Japan was responding, but Japan had a number of benefits, and China didn’t. Japan had a kind of buffer; the isolationism of the Tokugawa period meant that the onslaught of the commercial and military West didn’t happen until the 1850s and 1860s. In China, this was already happening 50 years earlier, and the European colonial interests were much more forward in China than they were in Japan, so Japan had a kind of waiting period in which it could watch what was going on in China and almost figure out when the Western imperialists come to them and what they are going to do. That’s maybe giving them too much wisdom in hindsight, but there was this buffer of 30-40 years that I think made a big difference. But also, you have to factor in the interests of the European powers; China was a large market and particularly, as the opium trade expanded rapidly through the first half of the 19th century, there was an enormous market there to capture. Japan represented a much smaller market, so I think the imperial powers were less interested in trying to do something in Japan.

That’s the second reason why I think Japan, in a sense, had an easier time with it than China did, that the pressures from the European powers for concessions, for treaty ports and all those sorts of things was much lighter, so there was this buffer of 30 or 40 years, and there was also this sense that it was a smaller market and perhaps a lesser market in terms of global circulations, so that made a difference. That said, “involuted” isn’t the right word, but in China, it was a small group of elite going around and around with each other through the 1890s and the early 1900s, and it was very difficult for a new vision to come forward. In particular, a new set of proposals for the institutional change had to happen to make the difference.

If we move in a little bit more closely to the particulars of the 1880s and 1890s, Japan was pushing very hard to change its relationship with Qing China. There was the incident of the fishermen on the Taiwan coast who were murdered, and then that became an opening for Japan politically to push against the Qing, and to test the waters in terms of Qing control of Taiwan. They’re doing the same thing in Korea, and it’s very much to try and – I wouldn’t say overturn relations with the Qing, but to put it on some kind of a new footing. This is something that I and my co-authors in the new book that we just brought in (Sacred Mandates) try to get a handle on because up until the 19th century, the Chinese tributary system was one of the modes in which international relations was conducted. Japan was supposed to be part of that system, but only “supposed” because the Tokugawa were not going to play that game. The whole thing about the Tokugawa closing the country… We talk about that as closing the country to the West, but really, it was closing the country to the Chinese tributary system.

Nonetheless, they needed systems of exchange, so there was trade with China through the Ryūkyūs, through Korea, so that when this new system of diplomatic exchange arrives with the coming of the West in the second half of the 19th century, I think Japanese politicians were very astute at thinking: Alright, how do we make use of the new norms of diplomatic exchange to strengthen our hand vis-a-vis the Qing? Now, the Qing weren’t completely obtuse to what was going on, so as they were learning the new diplomatic norms coming from the West, they were trying to figure out: How do we use this to strengthen our position, to strengthen our traditional suzerainty over Korea or direct control of Taiwan? How do we use the new norms to simply replicate what we asserted through the old norms? But the Japanese politicians who were involved in negotiating the treaties that ended up being signed were perhaps better informed about what the whole treaty process was, what the new diplomatic norms were going to be. On the Chinese side, I think Chinese negotiators couldn’t see what the endgame of what a lot of this was.

So, the cession of Taiwan and then the inroads in Korea… the rulers of the Qing are playing this more or less as if the old tributary system still applied and of course, it didn’t apply anywhere (least of all to Koreans). There was this point in the 1880s and 1890s where the Koreans thought: Ah, the coming of the Western diplomatic regime gives us an opportunity to step away from the Qing, but then Japan is right there to move in and exploit that moment. It’s a very brief moment in the late 1880s-1890s when Koreans begin to think about establishing themselves as a state on a par with the other major players of East Asia, and then the Japanese move in very quickly. It’s played in the textbooks as sort of a “China losing its dominance over the tributary system” and such. It’s much more complicated than that; Koreans were very much actors in this whole process, but they got outplayed by the Japanese and now, they’re also completely outplayed militarily.

I mean, part of the midterm success (not immediate) of the Tokugawa is their effective use of military power, so it’s not just entirely about setting up a new set of institutional norms, conforming to the standards that are coming out of the Westphalian international order and somehow, doing it all right. This is done very much as a military exploit, and maybe that’s sometimes left out of the story, and in that regard frankly, the Japanese do it very well. They develop an effective navy, they develop an effective modern army, the casualties in their conflicts with the Chinese and then later with the Russians at the beginning of the 20th century are appalling, so this is a new regime bent on asserting itself aggressively onto the Chinese mainland, and onto any other pieces of territory that it can get.

I’m raising this because we tend to then go half a century downstream and say: “Well, Japan adapted very well. China adapted very poorly. China fell into warlordism. Japan became a very competent state.” And the competency of the Japanese state isn’t in question, though the fact is that it was done through military means in which the military was re-organized along Western military models but in other ways, it was a very feudal organization. The farmboys dragooned into this were slaughtered in vast numbers in order to carry this out. I say this because the period in which I’ve worked most closely on in this history is the 1930s when Japan becomes a fully militarized state and turns its attention to China. And that doesn’t just come out of nowhere. I mean the Japanese capacity to use military means to intervene has been building up for decades. So, that military occupation of China in 1937/38 becomes a continuation of what has been building up for several decades.

TG: I was thinking about it… as you were talking about this head start that Japan gets. It is true that Japan got lucky in that the Western imperialists were all interested in wanting to get to China. In fact, Perry, when he comes to Japan, is actually trying to get to China.

TB: Yes.

TG: Japan is seen as a stopping point, but you’re talking about these common historical textbook narratives and of course, the way that the Restoration is seen in Japan in relation to China…as you were saying, China was the “old man” of Asia, Japan’s the new, young nation that modernizes very quickly, westernizes very quickly. This is why they eventually defeat China in 1895, and I think that’s been kind of picked up in some of the English language historiography a little bit.

TB: Yes, and it’s perfectly understandable because in fact, the Meiji leadership came up with a very plausible and appealing narrative, so that young Japanese growing up in the 1880s and 1890s can be very proud of what they’re doing, and there are great writers like Fukuzawa Yukichi who are telling stories that are immensely appealing, but also have the ring of a kind of objective truth to them at the same time, and so Japanese are swept into this very effectively.

China doesn’t have a compelling counter-narrative during this period. There have been the embarrassments of the Opium Wars (1840s and 1850s), the Taiping Rebellion (1850s, early 1860s). China has had many difficulties to deal with, so there isn’t a clear narrative to say: “This is where China is going. This is a vision for the future.” Whereas Japanese have that, and that was probably very effective in mobilizing Japanese to buy into this almost effortless shift of Japan going from a nation that is kind of re-establishing itself in the new system to becoming an imperialistic project, and that feels almost effortless as you go through the early decades of the 20th century watching what happens, and I think that story has carried on in our understanding, and in the way in which the textbooks tell the story.

TG: And then another narrative is that the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 (when Japan defeats China) destabilizes the entire region, and initiates a whole new wave of imperialism in East Asia, where now China is starting to get carved up, but now Japan is also a very aggressive player in this new imperialism.

TB: Yes, and the proof of that comes with the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 when eight foreign powers go in and impose a military occupation of the region around Beijing, and Japan is one of the eight, so I know this is a point of pride in the Japanese nationalist discourse, obviously, but there was a world audience to all of this, and it created a vision of China as backward, corrupt, old. These narratives of old vs. young are very strong and very appealing and so, in 1900, the West at East Asia and they said: “The Japanese are with us, the Chinese are hopeless.” In that way, it also gave Japan a free ride through the discussions at the end of the First World War in Versailles, kind of gave them a free ride down even to the 1930s when finally, the League of Nations decides that: “Maybe there’s things going on out here that we want to take a closer look at.”

TG: And you were talking about how the occupation of China in ‘37/‘38, the beginning of all out war there… If we start pushing that date earlier and earlier, you know, where did this begin? Some people might say: “Well, look at Hideyoshi in the 16th century. He’s eventually trying to invade China, right?”

TB: Yes. Well, the parallel is purely formal. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful. In fact, it’s probably an unhelpful parallel because what Hideyoshi was trying to do was set up trade relations with China, but not have to do it through the tributary system, so he was trying to capture the Korean position in the tributary system without becoming a tributary of China. So, Hideyoshi was playing within the rubric of the tributary system.

What the Meiji people were doing was saying: “We are going to now step right out of that system and impose a different one that allows us to be an equal with China.” And I don’t think Japan in the Tokugawa period is trying to say: “We are going to make ourselves the hegemonic power of East Asia, and China will be our supplicant.” I think their idea was that China and Japan were going to be equal powers. Now in fact, it slips forward into the 20th century. This then slips forward and by the 1930s, you get apologists in Japan saying: “Well, Japan has got to lead the way, and China is a basket case, and so we have to become the big brother to China.” But I think in the 19th century, that idea is not there yet. All they’re doing is saying: “We are a state equal with every other state in the world, and we are now an equal of China, and China’s going to get over its superiority complex and deal with us one to one.”

Some Chinese statesmen recognize this. The negotiations in 1895, the negotiations in 1905…there was a kind of understanding on the Chinese side that the game had changed, but these transition moments are very difficult for parties involved because we have to remember that when you’re standing there in 1895, you don’t know what’s coming in the next 50 years. You don’t know how the world is changing, and I think there was some hope among some Chinese elites that somehow, the old system (after all of this turmoil) would settle down and could continue the way it was going. There were signs that this might be possible. I mean, the Qing was watching the British Empire, and it was watching the Russian Empire, but the Qing did not anticipate that Japan can become an empire, so in the 19th century, the Qing was willing to imagine a world of empires in which its sphere of influence would remain intact. There would be contacts with the British, but they would try to draw the line between where the British Empire was going to come into this area and where it was not, but I think they did not anticipate that Japan would also assume imperial status.

TG: So, we might not be able to draw a straight line all the way back from 1931 to Hideyoshi, but if we were to draw that line somewhere… I mean, you were saying 1895…Sino-Japanese War is maybe a different thing. That’s an establishment of a new East Asia regional order. What about the 21 Demands in 1914? Can we point to that as maybe the beginning of a Japanese aspiration for territorial conquest in China?

TB: Yes, I think that would be exactly the place. That’s where founding propositions of the Japanese empire laid out the first time. It’s at that point, and by 1919, everybody on both sides of the East China Sea sees what’s afoot, I think. Maybe it took the First World War for that actually to move forward and become operational, I’m not sure. This is not something I’ve ever looked at, but it would be interesting to know more about how China and Japan reacted to World War I. Chinese, generally, were appalled. The Chinese intellectuals were appalled by World War I (the carnage). My sense is that this was not the same issue for Japanese intellectuals. Japanese intellectuals began to understand what a highly militarized, mobilized state could do, and perhaps without World War I, things wouldn’t have played out as aggressively on the Japanese side as they did through the 1910s.

TG: There’s been debate about this in Japanese historiography as well. I mean as far back as James Crowley talking about Japan’s quest for autonomy, Michael Barnhardt talking about the desire to secure autarchy. The lesson of World War I for Japan being that Germany lost in the war primarily because it was strangled to death and couldn’t maintain possession of the sources of raw materials. So, if Japan wanted to keep the empire running, it needed to have its own sources and so, China was that source. But there’s been other people who have said: “Well, the 21 Demands was a way for Japan to play the world system,” trying to play the European style British imperialism of treaty imperialism.

TB: Yes.

TG: And maybe we shouldn’t see that as a blatant land grab. Do you have thoughts on that?

TB: I’m going to dodge that question just because it’s not something that I’ve really worked on closely. I mean, my sense of this is that we have to remember that the early European trading economies of the 15th and 16th centuries engaged in colonialism in some parts of the world and not in others, so Spain takes over the Philippines, colonizes it very directly, but China is never colonized, Japan is never colonized, and by the 20th century, the idea of setting up new colonies… Colonies are expensive, and the British (particularly British politicians in Whitehall) were always in a panic about (we think of the British empire as going out and creating this great colonial empire with colonies all over the world) not acquiring more colonies. What they were trying to do is create beachheads throughout the world economy so that Britain could trade effectively in the world economy, but there’s so many other counterexamples going on at the moment: the United States taking over the West, Canada taking over the West.

Massive colonization is happening throughout the second half of the 19th century, so Japan is watching what’s going on out there in the world, and how they factor all those in…I don’t know. It’s a complicated picture, and I’m sure some Japanese commentators were looking at how the colonial empires were expanding. Others were probably thinking of how the less colonial and more mercantilist empires operated. The matter of taking over land in China was a huge break in anything in the China-Japan relationship, and I would like to see the research that could show us year by year, step by step how the idea of establishing colonies on the mainland developed, and perhaps that scholarship is there. I’m just not familiar with it.

TG: Certainly from 1928 (the assassination of Zhang Zuolin), if we think of the earlier aspirations of going into Korea and all of this discourse about Korea as a political vacuum waiting to be taken over by some European power, and if we want to defend ourselves, we have to go in and take it ourselves…

TB: Right, which was an entirely self-serving ideology, but Koreans were there, and would have been quite happy to fill their own “vacuum.” There was no vacuum.

TG: One of the questions that I ask a lot of guests on the podcast is: “Keeping in mind this is the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, and using that moment to reflect on Japanese history in the longue durée, what is the meaning of the Meiji Restoration, and what are some lessons that we can learn from Japan 150 years later if we were to look at that kind of big picture view of Japan and China in East Asia?”  You were talking before about how after the Restoration, Japan tries to dismantle the China-centric order, and temporarily succeeds in establishing a more Japan-centric one. Are we getting to the point now, post-economic bubble in Japan, where we see China on the rise? Has China regained this China-centric East Asian order?

TB: This is a subject on which many people like to weigh in, and I try to stand back from this one. It’s certainly a fact that China’s economic growth in the last 30 years, or should I put it: the way in which the world has brought China into the world economy has created a very powerful state there with a remarkable degree of ideological unity, which is curious because China has no ideology anymore other than nationalism, but there’s a great deal of unity around that. So, China is a large, powerful and economically capable state.

The question for the future is how Japan and China are going to deal with this because Japan’s military response to China in the early 20th century was not helpful in any way and led as much to the destruction of Japan as it did anything else. Japan’s economic capacity after 1945 has been noteworthy, and I don’t see that capacity actually dwindling. The effectiveness of a trading nation is not how big its army is. It’s how intelligently it can make use of the resources it has access to in order to build economic relations around the world.

Now, I think there’s been an unfortunate invocation of wartime atrocities by the Chinese to try and beat down Japanese claims or even Japanese negotiations over legitimate economic interests or economic benefits. I think that’s a sign China is trying to expand its influence in the region, and it leaves Japan in this very awkward position because I don’t think that bringing up atrocities committed 70 years ago is at all helpful for building future relations of any sort (diplomatic, economic or whatever). And the fact that one player has been doing that to another indicates a kind of bullying that does not bode well for the future, so I think some people in China feel that Japan has to take a secondary position. Well of course, Japan is always going to be secondary to China given just the size of its economy. Canada is never going to bully the United States economically, and Japan cannot expect to bully China economically.

Conversely, however, that requires that there be an understanding of what the liberal international order is about such that the United States is not bullying Canada, and China is not bullying Japan, but working that out is not going to be easy. Each is competing for a primary position in various ways, and there’s going to be much misunderstanding over the next 10 or 20 years, as China figures out how to be a major international power, and my slight worry is that they’re going to use beating Japan as a way to figure out how to achieve that prominence in East Asia. In the long run, I think there’s going to have to be a realignment among all of the other states of East Asia besides China because if you look at all of the states on China’s borders, or facing China across the water, not one of them is enthusiastic about what China is doing at the moment, and I think to some extent, all of the other nations of East Asia are going to have to help China become a responsible member of the world community, and I think the Japanese government is capable of doing this under the right leadership. And perhaps, Japanese need to think a little bit more about what appropriate leadership in Japan is going to look like in order to then help Japan negotiate with all the other East Asian nations (some kind of a less anxious international situation than we have today).

TG: So when we talk about a kind of political revolution that brings a new group of leaders into power who is able to foster a sense of national unity through nationalism, instigate industrialization and new types of economic growth, leading into territorial expansion and acquisition… I mean we could be talking about the Meiji Restoration or we could be talking about China after 1949.

TB: Right, and so, there are lessons to be learned about what Japan did to become this kind of great nation that became a great empire, and one of those lessons is that it’s not a good thing to do. It leads to conflict, it leads to war, it leads to violence, and it leads to the pushing of politics to the far right, so this is why it’s hard to sit here in 2018 and talk about sober minds prevailing when the leaderships around the world are being seized by far right political opportunists who have no difficulty in invoking violence as a way to solve a problem. So, these are difficult times we are finding ourselves in, and I mean I’ll put it this way: I think China needs Japan’s help to sort out what the future of the Japan-China relationship will be, and I think China has not asked for that help (with perhaps, some justifiable reasons) for decades, but as long as China is trying to settle some old score, China is not going to be able to negotiate a position for itself that is comfortable for its neighbours, and because Japan has had the terrible experience of becoming an empire, I think there are lessons that the Chinese government could learn. However, the current government in China is not disposed to learning that lesson at the moment.

The only way it’s going to learn it is if the rest of the nations of East Asia figure out how to take the high road, and maintain some kind of sustainable international order in East Asia. It’s something, actually, that the East Asian nations need to do. I don’t think that we in the West, the United States nor Russia should dictate how this works out. This is something that the nations of East Asia have to work out amongst themselves.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode: 

Timothy Brook, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, September 4, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-57-dr-timothy-brook-ubc/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.